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Journey to North Korea spurs area needle wizards into action

Ed and Genell Poitras trace their destinations on the Korean Peninsula through the years. "On a recent trip to Korea, we went to Pammunjon and as I looked wistfully to the north, I felt that this would be the last view of the place I would never set foot," she wrote in a chronicle of her trip. That would change in the spring of 2010. "Some visits to foreign places are trips, but this was a journey, a dream fulfilled after 50 years of waiting." (Jean Ruzicka / Enterprise)1 / 2
A colorful array of acrylic shawls is bound for North Korea, Hubbard United Methodist Pastor Laurie Kantonen, left, suggesting this be a yearly project, drawing a smile from Genell Poitras. Julie Smith and Boo Groth, right, chaired the initiative that grew from a hoped for 30 to 60 prayer shawls.2 / 2

Knitting needles and fingers - energized by the heart - have been engaged this autumn.

Sixty prayer shawls will soon arrive in North Korea to warm the body and spirit of those with tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Hubbard United Methodist Church members have been at the core of operations, but the shawls are a non-denominational effort, Genell Poitras providing the impetus.

Husband Dr. Ed Poitras, a Yale Divinity School graduate, had arrived in South Korea just after the war had ended in 1953 to conduct missionary work. He returned to the U.S. three years later, married Genell and they headed back in 1959, the country undergoing "a time of great transition."

The couple and their daughter, Catherine, would live in South Korea until 1989, when they returned to the United States.

Ed and Genell often hiked the mountains - a 20-minute drive from their home in Seoul, looking into North Korea from the Demilitarized Zone. Both yearned to visit the country.

The ambition has been realized by each of the Park Rapids residents, who are now pursuing separate missions.

The opportunity to travel to North Korea arose for Genell in 2010 when she accompanied a delegation sponsored by the Christian Friends of Korea.

She would travel into the mountains of North Korea in April to visit rest homes and hospitals receiving assistance from CFK, accessed by dirt roads and fording streams.

There she would discover the rooms for patients being treated for TB have no heat, children and adults battling the contagious bacterial infection live in rooms with no central heating system.

Her thoughts traveled across the Pacific to the hamlet of Hubbard, where the spirit of outreach was about to be tapped.

Limited foreign aid

CFK originated in 1995 during a period of famine caused by floods and inclement weather in North Korea.

Since then, the CFK focus has shifted to treating and eradicating tuberculosis.

Working under the auspices of Ministry of Public Health, the group provides medicine, medical equipment, blankets and food supplements.

In partnership with Stanford University, CFK has equipped a lab in the capital city of Pyongyang to assist in the identification and treatment of tuberculosis.

In an effort to help the North Koreans become self-sustaining, CFK builds greenhouses and provides tractors. The organization also imports doors and windows to bolster heat retention in structures.

Genell would discover aid arrives from other U.S. organizations, one working to create a bakery in a remote area of the mountains, and from Germany and Switzerland, who are promoting modern agricultural practices.

"But the scale is limited," Ed said. "North Koreans don't want too much foreign aid."

North Korea remains a communist nation, he explained. Many Buddhist temples are in the mountains. But as the only surviving Stalinist nation, religious practices are discouraged. A small number practice Christianity, but it's very restricted.

About 80 percent of land area is moderately high mountains separated by deep, narrow valleys and small, cultivated plains. The mountains preclude the country from being food sufficient, Ed said.

The country, home to 25.5 million people, is about the size of Mississippi. The climate consists of long, cold, dry winters and short, hot and humid summers.

Most of North Korea's industry is non-functional, creating an imbalance of trade dollars, Ed said. "They depend on the generosity of China."

South Korea, which enjoys a flourishing economy, has been unwilling to assist its neighbor to the north on the Korean Peninsula, despite a shared culture.

"But there is total literacy in both countries," he said. "Both value education."

North Korea has a national philosophy of self-reliance, Ed explained. But with its economic system, that can't occur. The infrastructure is in terrible condition, which they are attempting to improve.

"They have a distrust of foreigners, but nevertheless, beneath the surface, develop relationships," Ed said of his experiences.

They have a good sense of humor, he's discovered - Irish joviality with an Oriental twist. "But they can be temperamental. There's not that much to be happy about."

Hands across the ocean

At the end of November, Ed will depart to monitor distribution of emergency medical supplies to North Korea, ravaged earlier this year by monsoon flooding. This is organized through five U.S. non-governmental agencies.

Ed was there in September to supervise distribution of tarps, basic kitchen utensils, hygiene kits, shovels and buckets and emergency food for the malnourished.

Now he will oversee the distribution of nearly $3 million in medications and concentrated emergency food, peanut-based, high nutrient provisions for children in orphanages and pediatric wards.

And next year, at Pastor Laurie Kantonen's good-natured decree, another shipment of shawls will depart for CFK headquarters in North Carolina, bound for North Korea.

"I feel assured that each person who receives a shawl will be blessed by the hands that reached across the ocean to warm them when they recover," Genell tells the congregation in the newsletter.

"God truly works in mysterious and unexpected ways."